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Where in Mississippi is... Church Hill? (Small-Town Spotlight).

They say that every place has a story to tell, and that certainly proves true in Mississippi, filled with small towns rich in history and colorful residents. In the small town of Church Hill, selected in honor of the more than 330 weddings celebrated in this issue, we discovered a compelling story dating back to the earliest days of our nation, and a community determined to preserve its heritage.

Located in Jefferson County, Church Hill is about 14 miles northeast of Natchez on Mississippi Hwy. 553. Arriving in the town on a sunny winter day, we immediately discovered the source of the community's name--a lovely old brick church set atop a small hill. Christ Episcopal Church, we soon learned, is the oldest Episcopal organization in the state, dating from the 1790s. The church started out as a log cabin built by Rev. Adam Cloud, and the first congregation was made up primarily of members of the "Old Maryland Settlement," a group of people who moved to the Church Hill area from Maryland after the Revolutionary War. The current structure was built in 1858. It is considered one of the state's most significant examples of Gothic Revival architecture, with purist details like a functional hammer-beam roof and a paneled altar decorated with strapwork designs flanking a center embroidered cross.

One of the church's more recent claims to fame was its use for a scene in the 1980s television miniseries "North and South." Today, services are held at the church one Sunday a month, and visitors are welcome.

In its earliest days, Church Hill was a "plantation community," a loosely knit group of cotton planters who owned large plots of land and made gathering places of the local church and nearby country store, said Mimi Miller, director of preservation and education with the Historic Natchez Foundation. Its unique heritage and abundance of preserved historical homes led to Church Hill's recent recognition as a rural historic district in the National Register of Historic Places.

Just across the street from Christ Church is Wagner's Grocery Store, a building that once housed a thriving country store and post office. First built in 1870 or perhaps even earlier, the store was run by the Wagner family from 1927 to 1997. Many Church Hill residents have described the store as the community's unofficial city hail, according to Miller.

"I grew up doing little things around the store," said Adolph Wagner, who took over the business's operation after his father fell ill and eventually died in 1956. As a child, some of Wagner's chores included candling eggs and packing coffee and sugar in paper sacks, he said. He became town postmaster in 1963 and retired from that position in 1993. The store finally closed four years later, but not before becoming a tourist attraction that drew visitors from around the world, Wagner said.

The Wagner store is now the focus of a restoration project led by the Church Hill Preservation Trust, affiliated with the Historic Natchez Foundation. A push is on to not only save the old building but to transform it into an educational museum celebrating the area's history. Wagner said he hopes the museum will give visitors a true taste of the building's past.

"When I was a boy, when we sold syrup and vinegar, it came in wooden barrels with spigots, and if you wanted some, you had to bring a jug," he said. "And lard came in 50-pound cans, and you had to divide it up in trays and tie it with string." Even crackers came in tin boxes or large garbage can-sized containers, he said; a few old fixtures like these would help Mississippians remember the way things used to be.

To learn more about the storied past of Church Hill, one must go past the old church and store and deeper into the community. About a dozen pre-Civil War buildings are still standing today in the area, and most are privately owned, according to Miller. Among the beautiful homes erected here are several built by Colonel James Wood, the patriarch of the Maryland Settlement, who came to this area in 1810: Oak Grove and the Cedars, constructed around 1830 for two of his daughters, Jane and Maria; Woodland, built for son Robert Wood Young; and Lagonia, believed to have been built for an overseer.

Oak Grove was built in the federal style but enlarged and remodeled to fit the popular Greek Revival style just 10 years later; its ornamental plaster work is perhaps the finest of any rural plantation house except for nearby Brandon Hall, said Miller. The Cedars, a unique combination of an 1830s one-story planter's cottage and an 1860 two-and-a-half-story Grecian mansion, features double-tiered galleries, moss-draped cedar trees, and 176 wooded and landscaped acres accented with small lakes. Actor George Hamilton bought the home in the 1970s but has since sold it. Lagonia may have originally been built as an I-house--two stories in height, one room in depth, with a shed roof, one-story front, and rear porches; a second story was added in the early 20th century, according to a former resident.

Wood's own home, Auburn Hall, was destroyed by a tornado in 1908.

Other historic homes still surviving in the area include Richland, Pecan Grove, Rokeby, Rural Retreat, Woodlawn, Woodland, and Wyolah. Of these, Richland may be the most well-known. Built in the late 1840s, it is one of the largest in the state to exhibit the planter's cottage form, according to Miller. The home's current owners collaborated with New York designer Vincente Wolf on the design of the interior, which has since been featured in a number of magazines.

Another famous plantation in the area is Springfield, built in the late 1700s by Thomas Marston Green, a wealthy planter who went on to serve in Congress. Renowned for its architectural and historical significance, Springfield is believed to be the first structure with two-story columns constructed west of the Atlantic seaboard. In 1791, the mansion was the site of the wedding of Andrew Jackson to Rachel Robards. Later, Green's daughter Laminda, described as one of the most beautiful ladies in America at the time, married War of 1812 General Thomas Hinds, according to Natchez Historical Society president Barbara Haigh. Today, the home has been painstakingly restored and preserved; visitors may tour the grounds, manor house, and slave quarters.

The community of Church Hill today is "sparsely settled," Wagner said, noting that when he ran the post office, about 225 people received mail in the area. Church Hill never did have a large population, Wagner said, since many of its residents were landowners who occupied huge expanses of territory.

CHECK INTO CHURCH HILL

While none of the old homes is operated as a bed and breakfast, visitors may wish to consider staying in a rustic but charming cabin operated by Jim Shelby. The secluded 15-acre site, located across the street from the Wagner store, features two-bedroom cabins with hand-hewn furniture, fully equipped kitchens, wood stoves, decks with gas grills, and access to a walking trail and a pond stocked with bass, bream, and catfish. For information, call 601/442-1456 or email jims@telepak.net.

The Natchez Historical Society is now compiling a family history book on the Adams County and Church Hill areas; the book will be published sometime in 2003. For more details, write to the Natchez Historical Society, P.O. Box 49, Natchez, MS 39121.

The Preservation Trust needs more than $125,000 to carry out their plans to restore the Wagner store, so a fundraising effort is underway To that end, the third annual Church Hill Preservation Barn Dance, featuring a dinner and entertainment, is set for 7-11 p.m. April 11 at Anna Seed Barn on the west side of Hwy 553. For details, call the Historic Natchez Foundation at 601/442-2500. Donations may be sent to Church Hill Preservation Trust, P.O. Box 1761, Natchez, MS 39121.
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Article Details
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Author:Bozeman, Kelli
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Words:1322
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